Legal Memorandum: Attorneys Fees in Civil Rights Cases

Issue: Does Martin v. Hadix, 527 U.S. 343 (1999), limit either the hourly rate or total amount of recovery for attorney’s fees allowed under 42 U.S.C. 1988?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Attorney's fees; Fee limitations
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 527 U.S. 343
Cited Statutes: 42 U.S.C. 1988; 42 U.S.C. § 1983; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e
Date: 08/01/2000

           In Martin v. Hadix, 527 U.S. 343 (1999), the Supreme Court examined the claim of plaintiffs’ counsel for fees for post‑consent judgment monitoring activities to ensure compliance with the judgment.  The plaintiff prisoners had brought suit in 1980, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the conditions of their confinement violated the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In 1985, the plaintiffs entered into a consent decree with defendant prison officials to "assure the constitutionality" of the conditions of their confinement at the State Prison of Southern Michigan. Subsequently, the district court awarded attorney’s fees to plaintiffs for post‑judgment monitoring of the defendants’ compliance with the consent decree. The parties established a system for awarding those fees on a semiannual basis.  After passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), plaintiffs’ counsel filed fee requests for services performed both before and after the effective date of the PLRA.  The prison system argued that the PLRA meant that all fees claimed by the monitoring attorneys should be subject to the fee limitations.

The Supreme Court found that 42 U.S.C. § 1997e limits attorney’s fees with respect to post‑judgment monitoring services performed after the PLRA’s effective date of April 26, 1996, but does not limit fees for post‑judgment monitoring services performed before the effective date. The Supreme Court concluded that imposing the new standards for work performed after the effective date of the PLRA did not present a retroactivity problem. The Court reasoned that